Last year, we were in Bhutan. The programme was pre-set. Mine was to bury my head in Bhutan’s national dish, the cheese-and-chilli Ema Datshi. His, to make eye contact with the national animal, the Takin, which, from what we saw online, looked like the outcome of goats getting cosy with antelopes.
In Thimpu, one of the three cities we were visiting, the Takin could be spotted only at the Motithang Preserve. But we go there late and the gates were closed. The Ema Datshi had no such restrictions. It was available in all hotels, be it by a lake over which a fort, such as the Punakha Dzong, soared, or in any of the nameless little cafés that hikers pass while going up or down a mountain. And the latter is where we found the cook chopping up cheese in little squares to add to the dish.
We were holidaying in winter so we usually made a meal out of Ema Datshi or a burger. In case you are going this summer – June to September, and prime season in Bhutan — don’t miss it. It might seem heavy, especially if you’re having Ema Datshi with meat, but it’s worth it. And it has a secret ingredient – Amul cheese. We asked our travel agent, Kinlay Gyeltshen, who is a mine of information on all things Bhutan, why this was so.
Ema Datshi, a traditional Bhutanese chilli cheese stew. ( Getty Images )
“Amul cheese is actually the only cheese that was available, besides the local cheese, so it really was a novelty when it hit the markets in the ’70s. Bhutan then did not have much money or many outside connections, so Amul really caught on,” he says. Cooks in some of the hotels we stayed in, confirmed the presence of the Indian cheese in the making of their national dish that tastes great with rice.
Bhutan makes a great holiday in case you want India’s high mountains without too many Indian tourists, Buddhist stupas but with completely different mythologies, really clean air, politeness as an everyday habit, and great burgers with various meats.
As for the shopping scene, we came back with local cheeses made from cow and yak milk, and fermented mushrooms that we bought off roadside stalls, and they all went into the bowl of the Ema Datshi I made on our first weekend back home. But the standard practice is to buy a yak wool shawl.
MAKE EMA DATSHI AT HOME
Ingredients: 5 slices each of fat green and red chilli peppers, 1 onion, 1 tomato, 2 garlic cloves, 2 to 3 slit green chillies, Amul cheese, Bhutanese cheese (yak / cow milk cheese), 1 cup chicken / vegetable stock
Method: In 1 tsp vegetable oil, stir-fry the peppers, tomato, onion, garlic and green chillies. Add stock. Cover pan with lid; the softened veggies will release water. Add 50 gm Bhutanese cheese. After it melts, add 4 Amul cheese cubes cut into tiny squares. The dish should not be watery but of the consistency of a thick sauce. You can add slivers of boiled chicken, lamb or pork. Other additions can be mushrooms or potatoes. Salt to taste.
Tip: If Bhutanese cheese is unavailable, you can make it entirely with Amul cheese.